What the 1921 census says about British life at the turn of the 20th century


The lives of every man, woman and child living in England and Wales in 1921 have been revealed like never before, with detailed censuses from Windsor Castle and Checkers to cramped family homes made available to the public for the first time. time.

The recordings, released after 100 years locked in safes, offer an unprecedented snapshot of life across the two countries, capturing the personal details of 38 million people on June 19, 1921.

The census, published on Rediscover my past, features a number of famous names and their families, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George and King George V, as well as one-year-old Thomas Moore, who would become famous a century later as an NHS fundraiser, the Captain Sir Tom.

This is the last census that can be searched until after World War II, making it a rare look at documents from the turn of the 20th century.

The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire, while the 1941 census could not be taken due to the ongoing war.

With a tumultuous thirty-year gap between the recently released census and the next one in 1951, what can we expect to see in the records?

Not a revolution in the women’s workplace

British women rallied in large numbers to replace the workforce that was sent to the front lines in France and Belgium.

In big industrial powers like Birmingham, women learned new trades and professions, suddenly doing what was considered “men’s work.”

But that wouldn’t last.

Dr Michala Hulme, a University of Birmingham historian, said: “After World War I most women went back to doing what they used to do – if they didn’t start a new family with their partners.”

“And for most women, it’s domestic service. It was still one of the biggest employers for women at the time – working in the laundry, for example.”

Women will have to wait until they are called upon again during World War II to begin to experience the evolution of what was considered “the work of men and women”.

Divorces finally registered – but still frowned upon

This is the first census to allow “divorced” as a marital status, and we will not get another snapshot of divorced people on this scale until 1951.

But it was still a big social stigma at the time – “Divorce was always frowned upon. It was almost like you had ‘failed’,” Dr Hulme said.

What was an expensive process was even more difficult for women at the time.

“It was easy for men, they could divorce their wives because of adultery. But for women, it was more difficult. They could use adultery, but it would also have to be something else – the cruelty, our husband gone for two years, that sort of thing.

“75% of those who wanted a divorce after World War I are men. ”

“There are a number of reasons for this – they may have met someone while they were away as a nurse, or their wife may have had an affair because they thought their husbands would never come home. House.”

“Also, you have men who come home with PTSD and have a hard time re-adjusting to the normal, mundane life they used to have.”

The actual Birmingham Peaky Blinders are among the now famous faces recorded in the census – including their leader Thomas Mucklow, who the character of Tommy Shelby is based on.

Spanish flu against COVID-19

While the Spanish flu had run its course by then, the 1921 and 2021 censuses were hit by a deadly global pandemic.

What doesn’t compare are the reactions of governments 100 years apart – no NHS and a fairly ineffective national health advisory body have led to a confused central response.

But the initial thought was the same – Dr Hulme said “They tried to implement keeping your distance from people, they were disinfecting streetcars.”

“They were trying to get people to think about their own health and hygiene.”

Changes in the second city

The end of the war heralded another big change for large industrial cities like Birmingham – the start of a shift from heavy industry to light consumer goods.

It turned out to be an unexpected boon for young people. Dr Hulme said: “Some industries are disappearing, but others are coming to replace them. “

“And these new industries that are emerging during the interwar years want younger, unskilled people.

“So we’re starting to see a lot more freedom and freedom with finances during this time – and we’re starting to see the real rise in youth culture.”

This youthful culture has given us one of our enduring memories of the “Roaring Twenties” – the dandies and flappers.

Will you be reviewing the 1921 census transcripts and scans? What are you interested in? Comment below or speak to us on social media.

Men of the 2nd Battalion, Warwickshire Regiment at Sutton Coldfield station in July 1915.


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